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Sioux Falls youth triathlon programs building record of national success

Area triathletes have captured three age-group national championships in each of the past two years. Coach Kathy Grady says, "It's the kids," but parents and athletes agree that success starts at the top.

kathy and kids.jpg
Kathy Grady and Sioux Falls area triathletes who finished in the top 3 in their age group at the Zone3 USA Youth National Championships in West Chester, Ohio, in August. From left in the back row, Grady, Evan Mahrous and Addison Reilly. Front row, from left: Brianna Reilly, Autumn Gilhooly, Lila Knutson, Keegan Reilly and Evie DeGeest.
Contributed / Kathy Grady
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota isn’t supposed to produce some of the country’s best young triathletes.

But it does, particularly in the girls' ranks.

Sioux Falls-area triathletes have won eight age group national championships over the past decade, with a host of other high placings.

That included three more champions this year at the event in Ohio.

“Everybody says, ‘What’s in the water in Sioux Falls,” said Kathy Grady, who coaches about 40 young triathletes in two programs. “It’s the kids.”

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This year those kids who won national championships were Keegan Reilly, 8; Lila Knutson, 10; and Autumn Gillhooly, 12.

Grady is the aquatics supervisor at the Sanford Wellness Center on 49th Street in Sioux Falls. She started coaching in 2011 when her son joined Z3, a premier development team based in Des Moines, Iowa.

That led to Grady starting a branch of Z3 in Sioux Falls, in addition to the Sanford youth program she runs.

“What’s so cool is watching these kids at races,” she said. “They’re on the side, high-fiving each other as they are in the race and cheering for them.”

Triathlon can be a lonely sport with hours spent swimming, riding and running by yourself. That’s why creating a team, with coordinated training and instruction, is so important for juniors.

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Ruth Pardy, 16, competes in the Zone3 Youth & Junior Nationals in West Chester, Ohio, on Aug. 6-7, 2022. The Sioux Falls O'Gorman junior finished 2nd in her age group.
Contributed / Ruth Pardy

“There’s a really good community of triathletes around here,” said Ruth Pardy, 16, who has finished second at nationals the past two years. “Our team is really competitive within itself. They’re supportive, but still competitive.”

Right behind Pardy at last year’s nationals was Mia Wentzy, 16.

That third place was a career highlight for Wentzy, who wasn’t able to compete this year because of a foot injury sustained in a bike crash during a race.

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Wentzy is on the way to a full recovery and will be back training later this fall looking toward next season. She echoes the supportive but competitive sentiment.

Mia Wentzy.jpg
Mia Wentzy, 16, competes at the Flatland Cup Tri in Des Moines in 2021. Wentzy, a junior at Brandon Valley, finished third in her age group in the Zone3 Youth & Junior Nationals in West Chester, Ohio, in 2021.
Contributed / Sharon Wentzy

“It’s nice that we can push each other and I think it helps when we get into bike packs with each other,” she said. “We are both very proud of each other and excited for how each other does.”

Autumn Gilhooly comes from a family of triathletes.

The Gilhoolys moved to Sioux Falls in July, 2021, when Don took a position as a neurosurgeon at Avera Health after retiring from the Navy.

The strong triathlon culture was one of the reasons they picked Sioux Falls for their post-military life, said Jane Gillhooly, whose five children, ranging in age from 7 to 15, are in the programs.

“All of my kids did really well for the year,” she said. “Kathy has put together an amazing program.”

It was a cold and rainy day in August when Autumn won her race in the 12-year-old division.

The margin was razor thin, about one-quarter of a second. Any misstep or slip-up would have meant second place.

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“It felt amazing,” she said. “I don't know what I would have done if I lost by a fraction of a second. I would probably be disappointed.”

Autumn Gilhooly.jpg
Autumn Gilhooly, 11, after winning her age group at the Zone3 Youth and Junior National Championship in August.
Contributed / Jane Gilhooly

The cold, wet conditions may have actually helped, Autumn said.

“It was really bothersome before and after the race but during the race I wasn’t thinking about it,” she said.

So, what does an 11-year-old think about lining up at nationals against some of the best athletes of her age?

“Honestly, I was thinking that I didn’t think I was really ready for this,” Autumn said. “There were a lot of really talented girls who are just awesome at triathlon.”

If there’s a commonality among the young athletes under Grady’s tutelage, it’s that they think big. They believe they can excel.

Maybe that’s an extension of Grady’s perspective, or her master’s degree in sports psychology. Or it’s just the kind of kids who persevere in a sport that is a mash up of three distinct disciplines.

Whatever the reason, it’s there.

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Ruth Pardy leads Mia Wentzy and other triathletes during a draft legal race. Pardy and Wentzy are national contenders in triathlon.
Contributed / Ruth Pardy

Wentzy and Pardy are high school juniors, at Brandon Valley and O’Gorman respectively.

Women’s triathlon is an emerging sport in the NCAA, with 40 programs nationwide, including two in South Dakota. And while that’s not the only factor in their college thinking at this point, it’s one.

“I’m super fortunate that it’s least an option at this point,” said Pardy, the daughter of Paula and Matthew.

“I just love the way it makes you feel, the accomplishment, and the community,” said Wentzy, whose parents are Andy and Sharon. “I really like how you are doing all three sports in one and everybody who does it is so committed. It’s cool to be part of that.”

Autumn Gilhooly is just in sixth grade, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t started thinking about the future.

“Honestly, I always pictured myself doing triathlon my entire life,” she said. “I love it.”

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Kathy Grady, left, and Jane Gilhooly after a training run in Sioux Falls.
Contributed / Kathy Grady

Jane Gilhooly said the family isn’t single-minded about the sport. For now, at least, it’s helpful that all five kids — and mom — have the same interest, can pile into the van and head to races across the Upper Midwest.

Jane and Don met at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to Don’s career in medicine, Jane was an aviator, flying the E2 Hawkeye before leaving the navy to focus on family.

Thinking big must be part of the Gilhooly DNA, including triathlon.

“(Autumn) talks about being professional all the time. We keep that there, pinned to the bulletin board as a thought.”

For now, she’ll have to settle for national champion, one in a long and growing line from Sioux Falls.

Grady, for all her deflection and modesty, is at the center of that success.

Jane Gilhooly calls her the most-successful youth triathlon coach in the country.

“Our coach is really good,” said Ruth Pardy. “She knows how to motivate us.”

MORE FROM PATRICK LALLEY:

Related Topics: SIOUX FALLS
Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at plalley@siouxfallslive.com.
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